The recorded music archivists at Bear Records did music fans a huge solid when they released the wonderful Blowing The Fuse series of 15 discs between 2004-2006. Covering the years 1945-1960, each disc features between 26 and 31 tracks compiled by Dave "Daddy Cool" Booth from a variety of labels and a fat 60+ page book with "biographies, detailed song-by-song note, and incredibly rare pictures" written by Colin Escott in a tri-fold digipak. If you are a fan of the seminal Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974 collection, more than a few of the tracks from the first four volumes of that set will be familiar to you but its the breadth of artist and song selection coupled with the depth of details from the booklets and mastering that makes Blowing The Fuse such a rewarding listen for fans and students of the history of rhythm & blues but also the broader history of rock & roll itself. Then Bear Family followed Blowing The Fuse up with Sweet Soul Music, effectively and seamlessly extending the label's detailed history of rhythm & blues and soul music.
The first five volumes in the Sweet Soul Music series, covering the years 1961-1965, were released in 2008. Dave "Daddy Cool" was once again the series producer, striking that delicate balance of well-known national hits and the influential but lesser-known artists recording on smaller labels. Colin Escott returned to write the first two booklets of the series before Bill Dahl took over and the booklets swelled up to 94 pages for the 1965 disc.
Critics of the Sweet Soul Music series point out that all of the original tracks were recorded and released in Mono while Booth admittedly used Stereo versions if they were available. He also generally adhered to a one song per artist per year (disc) policy and presented each disc's tracklist in roughly chronological order based on the date of release.
Jürgen Crasser mastered each track, giving the songs a fuller, brighter and heavier sound. Purists will argue that his hand was a little heavy but in each of the disc players at my disposal, the songs sound better to my ears than I've ever heard them before. Probably no label's catalog has been re-issued and remastered as often as Motown. Most of the label's classic hit songs appear at least 20-30 times in my library on various discs but the versions on Sweet Soul Music are the ones that sound the best to me. It's almost as if Crasser has somehow figured out a way to make these much older recordings sound as if they were recorded within the past 30 years, using state of the art (for the time) technology. The same goes for his masters of recordings on Atlantic, King, and all the other labels.
You may not notice while listening to the 150 tracks that appear on the first five discs of Sweet Soul Music but some highly regarded artists are absent due to licensing issues; most notably, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. But chances are if you're picking up any of the Sweet Soul Music discs, you more than likely have at least a couple of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles discs already in your collection.
After these first five discs in 2008, Bear Family issued the ten-song sampler disc whose cover art with Lee Dorsey and his "love gun" is featured at the very top of this post. In addition to a 15-page booklet with one page devoted to each track, the disc in the digipack features one song from each of ten discs: the first five covered here today and the next five, spanning 1966-1970, which we will look at in the future.